Many education researchers have come to see social and emotional learning
as a key that unlocks solutions to a host of challenges. Through programs that emphasize traits such as self-awareness, relationship-building, decision-making, and resilience, social and emotional learning is proving a robust toolkit for increasing academic achievement; nurturing prosocial behaviors such as kindness, sharing, and empathy; improving student attitudes toward school; and even reducing depression and stress. In short, social and emotional learning—particularly in the formative elementary and middle school years—can shape the foundations of students’ ability to succeed in high school, college, and life.
At Shore, the high stakes around this kind of learning have underscored a decades-long commitment to creating and sustaining a culture in which students feel safe and may thrive. From Pre-K to Grade 9, Shore students today find vital social and emotional support within a layered, research-based network of strategies and structures that’s broad in scope and surprising in sophistication.
In the Lower School, building such an environment starts in the homeroom, where social and emotional learning are at the center of every day’s routine, thoroughly integrated into a teaching model called “Responsive Classroom.” According to Knox, “This model gives us a division-wide set of shared practices to ensure that all our students feel safe and feel they have a voice.” In the Responsive Classroom model, students learn and practice a set of social and emotional competencies—cooperation, assertiveness, responsibility, empathy, and self control—alongside academic skills; the combination allows them to do their best work, and be their best selves.
Beyond the homeroom, teachers continue the conversations that begin with their students. “Much of the work that our teachers do outside the classroom is, in fact, discussing who our students are as individuals—their interests, struggles, conflicts, and gifts—and what they need from us to be at their best,” Sara Knox explains. Each week, she meets either with her Lower School homeroom faculty or with special-subject teachers, who see multiple grades for SAIL, science, Spanish, studio art, and music. “The purpose of these meetings,” she says, “is, of course, to collaborate on topics in the curriculum, but more importantly it is to share observations about our students, identify those in whom we may see emerging strengths or new challenges, and together develop concrete tactics and next steps to support them.”
According to Katie Hertz, Shore’s school counselor, “Our system is nimble. By that I mean that taking care of the social and emotional health of our students is something the whole faculty feels responsible for. Everyone is attuned to it; that’s the beauty of our culture and our community.” Meeting with grade-level teams each week, Hertz is able to work with faculty members to identify where help may be needed, and to respond quickly with new areas of focus in the curriculum to support groups of kids, or even entire grades.
The nimbleness Hertz describes pays off as children “graduate” from the Lower School’s homeroom model to the Upper School advisory system. There, though students move between multiple teachers for their primary subjects, they meet numerous times each week with an advisor, who in many ways serves the same role as a homeroom teacher. Students’ access to an advisor’s support is built into the academic schedule at several points throughout the week. Each day during an Extra Help period—an open half-hour period at the end of the daily class schedule for catching up on work, meeting with a teacher, or participating in an extracurricular activity—students visit their advisor for what can be anything from a brief check-in to a longer conversation about a specific concern. Weekly, advisee groups share informal conversation over lunch with their advisor, and during a dedicated advisory period, more formal sessions on specific topics are convened.
In Shore’s program, however, the advisor is not alone in providing this kind of support; he or she is at the center of a network of adults responsible for supporting children socially and emotionally, as well as academically. Just as in the Lower School, Upper School faculty members as a group form another layer of support for their students. Subject-area teachers in a given grade come together every other week to discuss matters in the curriculum and to share observations or concerns about their students. Because numerous teachers in addition to the advisor will have experience with each student, there’s a kind of “institutional knowledge” that’s built over time to help inform understanding of a given student’s situation.
In reflecting on Shore’s program for social and emotional learning, fourth grade teacher Stacy Tell captures a notion that is likely common to many observers. “For adults—teachers and parents—the social and emotional lives of our students may come to the surface at only intermittent moments during the day. When we talk about supporting children socially and emotionally, it can be hard to point to specifics that don’t feel as if they’re reactions to those times when something concerning bubbles to the top.”
Yet for elementary and middle school-aged children, social and emotional concerns constitute a powerful current that’s never confined to isolated moments. Rather, they’re a central piece of the learning they’re engaged in at Shore each day.